Ten months ago in the dead of night a crime was committed in El Salvador that shocked the world. Elite, U.S.-trained troops of the Salvadoran army's Atlacatl Battalion dragged six Jesuit priests from their beds and murdered them alongside their housekeeper and her daughter, who were witnesses to the crime.
The brutality of the murders and the Jesuits role as articulate and visible proponents of a peaceful solution to EL Salvador's 10-year civil war awakened the conscience of the world. In every other way, however, they were no different from the 40,000 Salvadorans whose lives were snatched away -- on a street corner, in a union meeting, walking to class, leaving home in the morning -- because they were seen as "enemies" and "subversives" by the Salvadoran military and the death squads that are part of the security apparatus.
The murder of the Jesuit priests and their co-workers has become a test case of El Salvador's political and judicial systems. The case has also come to symbolize graphically the ability of the Salvadoran military to get away with murder -- despite the fact that a billion dollars of American taxpayers' money has been sent in military aid to El Salvador since 1980.
The House of Representatives, on Nov. 20, four days after the killings, passed a resolution by 409 votes to 3 stating "unequivocally that a satisfactory resolution of this case is a pivotal test of El Salvador's democratic and judicial institutions and will be instrumental in determining continued U.S. support of the government of El Salvador." The following day the Senate passed a similarly worded resolution by 99 to 0.
In the aftermath of the massacre, House Speaker Thomas Foley formed a task force on El Salvador to monitor the Salvadoran investigation of the murders. On April 30 of this year the chairman of the task force, Rep. Joe Moakley, reported that the Salvadoran investigation of the case had "come to a virtual standstill." On Aug. 15, Moakley reported that "the high command of the Salvadoran armed forces is engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Jesuits' case. Salvadoran military officers have withheld evidence, destroyed evidence, falsified evidence and repeatedly perjured themselves in testimony before the judge."
The failure of the Salvadoran authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the killings has intensified pressure in Congress to cut back U.S. aid to El Salvador. In June, the House passed a bill to withhold 50 percent of military aid to El Salvador. This month, the Senate will vote on a similar proposal from Sens. Leahy and Dodd.
The passage of the Leahy-Dodd proposal in the Senate will send a message to the Salvadoran government and armed forces that their decade of lavish and almost unquestioned support from the United States is at an end and that the U.S. Congress is committed to supporting a negotiated end to El Salvador's civil war.
It is possible, however, that even this message will fall upon the deaf ears of those in the Salvadoran armed forces who ordered the massacre of my Jesuit brothers and who have covered up their role in the crime. These officers, who cheered when the killings were announced and who see the murders as at most a public relations problem, are a major barrier to a negotiated solution to the war in El Salvador. A 50 percent cut in military aid will send a strong message to the Salvadoran government and military. A complete cut-off of military aid may be needed before that message penetrates.
Father Buhler is executive secretary for International Ministries of the United States and Canadian Jesuits.